From the Front Lines: "Letters to Leaders" Involves Parents, Students, Staff in Grassroots Advocacy

March 6, 2012

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Each year, The Classical Academies' school community participates in the Letters to Leaders Initiative, a campaign to involve students, parents, and team members in an organized and specific plan to address an issue facing charter schools, and to give them outlet to be involved to communicate directly with our state leaders. CCSA sat down with Executive Director Cameron Curry, who also sits on the Member Council, to learn more about the program, and how other charters can implement similar advocacy programs.

Where did the idea for Letters to Leaders come from?

The Letters to Leaders idea sprang out of a meeting I had with the Classical Academies longtime friend and advocate Senator Mark Wyland three years ago. I have annually written, spoken to, or met with the Senator to provide him updates on our growth and success. (Mark was on the school board in 1999 and voted to sponsor our first charter school, The Classical Academy.) Having seen the effect of these communications, it just made sense to increase the impact by having more letters and individuals writing, too. However, encouraging people to write individually doesn't always happen, with all the responsibilities parents and students have with their busy schedules. Having a specific and organized campaign annually maximizes participation and impact.

For the past three years the organization has written more than 1,600 letters to our state leaders centered on the themes of support and increased funding for charter schools. Last year's effort centered on welcoming Governor Jerry Brown back to elected office. Our community knew of his efforts to open and manage charter schools in the Oakland area and knew that he was one of the few elected leaders that knew about the challenges of opening and managing a charter school. That was a touch point for our community and "welcome back" letters seemed like the perfect focus for our 2011 campaign.

Why is it important for parents and charter supporters to participate in efforts like this?

Parents have a voice and need to be reminded from time-to-time to use it. We live in a time where it is easy to be disenchanted with the electoral process and those in leadership in Sacramento. Having a targeted message, on a particular theme centered on our school, has allowed parents to be drawn into making their voices heard. If our school didn't make this an annual focus to collectively engage parents in this relatively simple exercise to express their advocacy, I am not sure that a majority of parents would participate. I feel a responsibility as a charter school leader to keep my community informed of the issues and encourage their participation when and if it is appropriate. Change only happens when we step up and make our voices heard. I have a responsibility to encourage our parents to make that step so they stay actively involved in our school and in our community.

What's the reaction from your parent community when you ask them to write letters?

Most parents share the belief that state leaders are out of touch and need some connections to local issues and challenges that families are facing in our community. The first year of the campaign I was met with skepticism that our letters would have an impact. Today, more parents are participating knowing that their efforts can and will make a difference. It all comes down to effectively communicating on a consistent basis with our parents. If they are informed, they are more likely to get involved and stay involved.

For the past three years our parents have written, or helped their children write, over 1,600 letters that have been sent to the Governor's office in Sacramento. This year's campaign collected 730 letters around the theme of increased support for charter school funding.

What sorts of things do they write?

Parents detail the impact that their school has had on the life of their student. They will sometimes detail their experience at another charter school or traditional public school and then contrast the difference we are making with our Personalized Learning approach and the impact it has had on their student. Some parents will just share their joy in having choice in the public school arena and they want to thank the Governor for his support of public school choice. Others will detail how they have seen increased support for the student with special needs and how our school has met those needs that were not met somewhere else. Reading these letters can bring a school leader great joy knowing that you have helped create a wonderful learning community that is providing an excellent academic program and a deeply caring school community.

What advice would you give to other charter leaders looking to do this type of project?

Charter school leaders are "in the know" about challenges and obstacles that are faced by their specific charter school community. I am a firm believer that advocacy for your charter school starts at the local level. I would encourage all leaders to pick up the telephone and schedule a few face-to-face meetings with your city council and Mayor. Also, do the same thing with your local Assemblyman or Senator. Get to know your local leaders and then expand that impact for your community by encouraging your parents to get involved.

I often take the information that CCSA's Government Affairs Team assembles to inform parents. I will take snippets or themes from these communications and post it on the school's Facebook page. When there is a troubling piece of legislation that will impact charter schools, I will send to parents with a message that encourages them to learn more by visiting a website or resource to learn more about an issue. As a school leader I am not advocating a particular position, but rather asking that parents look deeper and decide for themselves when and if to act by writing a letter or making a call to their elected official.

Your message to parents as a charter school leader needs to be one of strength and consistency. Parents want to know that you are informed, care, and are committed to helping their son or daughter succeed. Establishing a priority to encourage parent participation in support for your school and program is time well spent.

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